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‘Help someone’: 60-year deputy continues to lead by example

June 1, 2019
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In this 1964 photo, Ross County Sheriff's Deputy Doug Ray put his scuba training to use to check out a car partially submerged in Paint Creek in Chillicothe, Oho. The car, which was stolen, turned out to be empty and intentionally ran into the creek. Ray was recently honored for his work as a Ross County Deputy Sheriff for almost 60 years. (The Chillicothe Gazette via AP)

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio (AP) — When Doug Ray joined the Ross County Sheriff’s Office, he sometimes had to take his gun off and help cook for the inmates in the jail.

There was a full-time cook but everyone ends up with a day off here and there for whatever reason even back in the 1960s. The sheriff at the time was Fred Heinzelman, the last sheriff to live at the old jailhouse on West Main Street. He and his wife Lilly kept an eye out around the clock with a deputy taking on the roles of jailer and dispatcher simultaneously.

Ray was just 26 years old, a route salesman for Omar Bakery, when Heinzelman agreed to bring him on as a special deputy in 1959 then as a full-time deputy the following year at an annual salary of $3,200. He was one of no more than a dozen deputies in the department which had just two cruisers, one county ambulance which Ray often ran, and no more than 60 inmates in the jail.

Ray’s nephew, Austin Leedom, was a deputy and had talked him into joining the department. Little did he know, 60 years later he’d still be there serving, now under his fifth sheriff, and currently the second longest commissioned officer still working in the state next to Howard Mullen in Meigs County who began in 1952.

“I didn’t figure 60 years,” Ray said. “To me, it’s not a very long time.”

Ray was born in Jackson County one of 17 kids, his father a timberman, he said they never had much money. He attended Cadmus High School in Gallia County and at 16, enlisted in the United States Army.

Ray expected to be in the Army for just three years, but was sent to serve in the Korean War and got a “Truman year.”

“I sang the song ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’ in 1951 and I was wrong,” he said, adding he had three brothers who served in World War II and his father was in World War I. “It wasn’t bad. I didn’t regret anything.”

The experience left him with emotional scars, though, having lost five close buddies when the jeep they were in hit a mine. He was supposed to be with them.

“I missed it by five minutes,” he said. “May 29, 1951.”

Decades later, Ray got a call from a man in Texas who said some of the men he’d served with had been memorializing him for years, thinking Ray had been in the jeep that day. He went to his company’s next reunion in Florida and has continued to meet with them since, sometimes hosting them at his home.

After getting out of the Army, Ray lived near the Silver Bridge which spanned the Ohio River from Gallipolis to Point Pleasant, West Virginia. In December 1967, he ended up back there when the 1,750-foot bridge collapsed during rush hour traffic, killing 46. It seemed incomprehensible to Ray when he was asked to go help.

“I said, ‘The Silver Bridge can’t fall down,’” Ray said, adding he arrived after dark and saw the tangled mess left behind. “They brought in cranes the next day to pull them out.”

Ray was among around 100 divers — including two others from Ross County, Dwight Beery and Ralph Townsend — who helped with the recovery efforts. At the time of the collapse, Ross County’s water rescue dive team was no more than six years old.

The team came about after Ray had been to a few drownings to help recover the victims, the most recent at the time being a child in Pickaway County. He made the suggestion to Heinzelman, noting by being trained in scuba diving, they should be able to recover more quickly since it would allow them to search underwater better.

He and Don Detillion were the first trained, he said, the only ones at the time between Columbus and Portsmouth. Ray continued diving into the 1980s having recovered an estimated 40 or 50 bodies throughout the region, many of them still vivid, bringing him near tears as they ran through his mind, especially the children.

“It was a bad thing,” he said, staring down at his kitchen table.

“I didn’t enjoy recovering the bodies but somebody had to do it,” he said.

Ray’s wife of 42 years, Phyllis, said diving for her husband was always about bringing closure for the families.

“It seems to me it relates to what he does with the honor guard,” she said. “It’s not for the victim, it’s for the family.”

Children have long been a factor in his work. He was among those who started the Junior Deputy program at the sheriff’s office under Heinzelman, was a Boy Scout safety officer, a camp counselor for Unioto’s conservation camp long after his son’s sixth grade year, and in 1971 he took on the job of attendance officer for the Chillicothe City Schools.

“I enjoyed helping out the kids,” he said.

Ray sometimes fields compliments from now grown kids he helped in some way. Most recently was a young woman he must have chased after as an attendance officer.

“She said, ‘You’re the one that got me graduated and now I’ve got a bachelor’s.’ ... I’ve enjoyed helping people and they come back to me every once in a while to thank me, it makes it all worth it,” Ray said.

Education is something Ray’s had to continue for himself over the years, too. He had been a deputy more than five years when compulsory education came along for law enforcement and certification. He and others locally had to attend an academy which was set up at the Holiday Inn.

“I lived in town but had to stay at the hotel,” he said.

Afterward, he’s continued education as required to maintain certification but also for specialty skills such as reading fingerprints and making composite sketches. Last month, Ray qualified at the shooting range which also is required for certification.

“Police work is good work ... I’m just glad I’ve never had to use my gun to shoot someone,” Ray said, recalling having had someone pull a gun on him. “I’ve always been able to talk my way out of it somehow.”

When Ray gets up each day, there’s four uniforms he may need to don that day — sheriff’s, honor guard, color guard, or civil air patrol. As a member of the honor guard, Ray estimates he attends 120 funerals a year.

While he doesn’t get called on by the sheriff’s office as much as he used to, Ray still helps out with different events and traffic details as a volunteer reserve deputy. He and Phyllis both volunteer with the Hope Clinic — her naturally on the medical side due to her nursing background while he focuses more with aiding those with the mobile food market, sometimes pushing carts for the elderly, he said.

“It gets him out of the house and keeps him active,” Phyliis said, adding he works out every week which helps keep him going.

The work also allows him to continue following the advice of his first sheriff.

“Fred Heinzelman always told me, Doug, every time you put on a badge and a gun, remember to help someone ... and I’ve tried to do that,” Ray said.

His favorite uniform, though, has to be that of family man. He enjoys taking them on vacations and gathering for reunions at his home, hearing about the achievements of his son and three grandchildren including his oldest who is in the beginning of her own law enforcement career at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.

“I’ve got a good family. A wonderful family,” Ray said. “I’m proud of them.”

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